Prison recycling workers exposed to heavy metals

Inspector General Issues Report Documenting Problems with Federal Prison E-Waste Recycling

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General issued a scathing report on October 21, 2010, having found numerous violations of health, safety, and environmental laws and regulations, as well as “gross misconduct” by staff working for the Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR.

“We also found numerous instances of staff misconduct and performance failures. These included actions that endangered staff and inmates: dishonesty, dereliction of duty, and theft, among others. In all, we concluded that 11 UNICOR and BOP [Bureau of Prisons] employees committed either misconduct or performance failures in their work related to the e-waste recycling program.” Misconduct included endangering staff and inmates, dishonesty, and dereliction of duty.

Findings included:

  • Staff and inmates were repeatedly exposed to toxic metals- cadmium and lead
  • Workers not adequately protected from exposures
  • Workers and inmates not properly monitored for potential exposures
  • Failure to report inmate injuries
  • Inmates were made to load shipping containers with e-waste, which were then exported
  • UNICOR employees stole some electronics products and sold them on e-bay.
  • UNICOR concealed actual working conditions from inspectors by cleaning up production lines before they arrived

While the report acknowledged some improvements made as of 2009 (when a new manager was hired), it expressed concern about systemic problems plaguing the prison recycling operation.

“[W]e believe that the success of these efforts in the future could be hindered by lingering, systemic problems such as the lack of technical resources, inadequate oversight, and a Health Services Division at BOP Headquarters that lacks authority to manage the delivery of quality safety services throughout the BOP and UNICOR.”

Read the report:

Inspector General Confirms NGO’s Analysis of Prison Recycling Problem

Many of these conditions were reported back in 2006 in a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Center for Environmental Health, along with Prison Activist Resource Center and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.